China Eyes 100,000 Movie Screens and Closer Ties to Cannes: Six Takeaways From Country’s Five-Year Film Plan

My Country, My Parents
"My Country, My Parents"

Over the next five years, China plans to expand its fleet of movie screens to more than 100,000 and release at least 50 $15 million-grossing films a year as it seeks to retain its title as the world’s largest film market, according to a new government plan outlining current film industry priorities.

The targets are among the most concrete presented in a new five-year plan for Chinese film spanning from 2021 to 2025, which replaces an earlier 10-year strategy spanning 2011 to 2020.

The plan’s ultimate goal, however, is to build China into a “strong cultural power” by 2035 — one that can only be achieved, it says, by “adhering to the Party’s total leadership over film work.”

Below is a breakdown of the major points found within the document and what it indicates industry watchers should expect from China in the next five years.

More talk of becoming a “strong film power” by 2035

China will be a “strong film power” once it’s able to continuously release globally influential “masterpieces that demonstrate the Chinese spirit, Chinese values, Chinese power, and Chinese aesthetics,” the plan reads.

It requires that the country generate 10 major films a year that are both “critically acclaimed and popular,” and 50 or so films that gross RMB100 million ($15.7 million) or more.

Additionally, it says, domestic films should account for more than 55% of the total annual box office. The target appears achievable, given that local titles accounted for 62% of the national cume in 2018, 64% in 2019 and 84% last year, according to data tracker Maoyan.

Greater consolidation of exhibition sector, new cinemas in rural areas, and more patriotic movies

The country should boast 100,000 screens by the year 2025, the plan says, up from 77,769 screens as of this March, according to National Film Administration data.

Given that the exhibition sector is already grappling with overcapacity and a declining number of movie-goers, the goal may raise eyebrows locally. A large number of the screens, however, will likely emerge in less developed areas where authorities have called for a “speeding up” of new cinema construction and an “improvement of rural cinema chains to make them more competitive.”

Such new theaters should have at least two screening halls and no less than 100 seats, be equipped with 2K-quality digital projection or above, and, ideally, integrated into a broader cinema chain.

Authorities hope such chains will outstrip standalone theaters in the next five years, particularly since their services are easier to standardize, regulate and control. The country must create a “rectification plan” for struggling chains and wayward franchisees and “strive for a complete rectification” of violators by 2025.

As major Chinese blockbusters grow increasingly politicized, the plan makes it clear that the push to bring far-flung peoples and regions access to cinema aligns with efforts to make patriotic content as widely seen as possible.

Every cinema in the country based in a county-level city or above must devote one screening hall to the so-called “People’s Cinema” circuit for the showing of propaganda films. This will “expand the screening space for local [propaganda] films” and “accord propaganda films with high ideological and artistic standards support for screening scheduling.”

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Chinese movies should strive to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable image of China,” says a new five-year film plan. Courtesy Tiger Pictures Int’l

An outflow of propaganda, sci-fi and animated content spreading positivity, patriotism and a “lovable image of China.”

The plan repeatedly points out a need for content diversification but only offers particular support to political works, science-fiction and animation that “exhibit the Chinese national spirit and Eastern aesthetics” and “educate and guide young people to … establish cultural self-confidence.”

Other categories receiving special mention and recognition are “special films” (presumably those in Imax or 3D formats), titles centered on rural, childhood or ethnic minority themes, documentaries and opera.

More films that “eulogize the party, the motherland, the people and heroes so as to pass on red [Communist] genes and continue [the Party’s] lineage” should be made to fete important political milestones, such as the ongoing 80th anniversary of the Korean War, the plan outlines.

Creators should develop “film works with muscle and bone, ethics, and warmth” that “highlight the beauty of ideals and beliefs … and inspire people to move towards the future with vigor and vitality.”

Chinese movies should strive to create a “trustworthy, lovable, and respectable image of China.”

Becoming a global leader at intersection of emerging high technologies and film-making

The plan posits the establishment of a “national high-tech film research laboratory” exploring how to improve the Chinese film industry via cloud computing, big data, 5G, VR, AI, machine learning, deep learning, trusted computing, and blockchain.

Emphasis will be placed on “breaking foreign tech monopolies” when it comes to film industry-related tech, with China seeking advances and “independent intellectual property rights” in areas such as video and audio codecs, digital content encryption and decryption, cinema projection and equipment systems, and digital watermarking and certificate authentication, among other fields. As a leader in such areas, Beijing will then “strive to… guide international standards.”

Large resources will also be directed towards trying to improve China’s VFX capabilities, which will be developed hand-in-hand with a growing arsenal of increasingly complex sci-fi films via a strategy of “promoting the overall improvement of the level of film special effects through the vigorous support of sci-fi films.”

Politics will reign ever more supreme

The next five years will see a strengthening of party control over all aspects of the film industry, from production to distribution to film awards and reviewing mechanisms to “creativity” itself. 

Talent and industry professionals must have “both ability and political integrity, and put morality first,” the plan thus says. A film’s politics and social positioning should be just as salient aspects as its artistic merits or commercial appeal.

After all, movies, the plan’s first sentence reminds, “are an important ideological front for the work of spreading ideological thought … and indicator of a country’s cultural soft power” — and thus inseparable from politics. 

A growing presence of Chinese cinema on the international stage — and Cannes

Although China’s major blockbusters have historically travelled insignificantly to audiences abroad, making their big bucks at home, the new five-year plan doesn’t propose a total inward turn.

It speaks of a desire to expand China’s international distribution networks and redouble efforts to market Chinese films abroad in a more targeted fashion to different regions and viewerships, to “open up overseas markets” and “enhance the international competitiveness of Chinese films.”

Film companies will also be encouraged, it says, “to explore the international market through investment, mergers and acquisitions, cooperations, and other means” — an unexpected directive at a time when major Chinese firms are pulling back from overseas and such explorations with Hollywood all but ground to a halt during the U.S.-China trade war.

A new China booth at Cannes, Venice, Hong Kong and other major international film festivals will be established to “display the latest achievements and developments in Chinese cinema” and “actively promote foreign film trade.”

The mention of Cannes is the first official indication that China intends to continue participating at scale in the festival despite its surprise decision this year to screen the Hong Kong protest documentary “Revolution of Our Times.”